Virtual Brainstorming for an Innovation Advantage in Hybrid and Remote Work

Fear of losing their innovative edge pushes many leaders to reject hybrid and virtual work arrangements. They feel that on-site, synchronous brainstorming sessions are more effective than those done online, and push for staff to return to the office to avoid being overtaken by competitors.

Yet extensive research shows that hybrid and remote teams can gain an innovation advantage and outcompete in-person teams by adopting best practices for innovation. What explains this discrepancy between leadership beliefs and scientific evidence?

Having consulted1 for over a dozen companies on a strategic return back to the office, I discovered the root of the problem. The vast majority of leaders have tried to pursue innovation during lockdown by adapting their office-based approach of synchronous brainstorming to videoconference meetings. They found that videoconferences aren’t well suited for traditional brainstorming, and thus feel they need to go back to the office.

Unfortunately, these leaders are stuck with their existing methods for innovation, and haven’t investigated and adapted to modalities better suited to virtual innovation. This failure to adapt strategically to their new circumstances is now threatening their capacity for innovation. 

How returning to the office full time may threaten innovation 

All of the leaders I spoke with shared the same overarching goal: to maximize innovation in the most efficient and effective manner possible. To this end, they all tried to replicate their office-based approach of synchronous brainstorming in this new modality of videoconferencing.

Therein lies the problem. None of the leaders I spoke to had tried to research best practices in virtual innovation in order to adapt strategically to their new circumstances; instead, they tried to impose their pre-existing, office-based methods on virtual work. While understandable in the initial stages of lockdown, it might seem surprising that they would pursue this same office-based toolkit over the many months of the pandemic. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Thus, these leaders started pushing for a full-time return to the office after vaccines became widely available.

The problem with this approach is that remote and hybrid work are here to stay. Extensive research on employee attitudes2 towards post-vaccine work arrangements showed that 25%–35% wanted to work remotely all the time; 50–65% wanted to return to the office with a hybrid schedule (with a day or two of in-person work per week); and only 15–25% desired to go back Monday to Friday on a 9–5 schedule.

These employee desires represent a definite mismatch with the demands of product leaders, the large majority of whom wanted to go back to the office full time. The surveys showed that 40–55% of employees intended to find a new job if they did not get access to their desired working preferences.3 Indeed, we know that many have already resigned4 due to their employers trying to force them back to the office. 

It’s obvious that having a large portion of your workforce resign is no way to maintain an innovation advantage. That’s why Google backtracked5 from its intention to force all employees to return to campus and permitted full-time remote work to many workers, in the face of mass employee resistance and resignations. Amazon did the same for similar reasons.6 

Even still, these trillion-dollar companies have floundered as they’ve tried to navigate the landscape of post-vaccine work, with the departure of top employees, serious hits to employee morale and engagement, and repeated changes to their return-to-office plans. If these top companies, with supposedly the best leadership and policies, can screw up this transition so badly, no wonder leaders at less-resourced smaller companies are struggling as well.

The judgment errors blocking innovation best practices 

Leaders often fail to adopt best practices in innovation because of errors in judgment known as cognitive biases. For instance, the rejection of new methods & tools in favor of pre-established ways is known as the status quo bias.

A related bias is functional fixedness, which prevents us from seeing the alternative usages of some object—for example, the ways we might adapt an organization’s existing suite of tools and programs to better facilitate virtual brainstorming.

Finally, the not-invented-here syndrome7 arises when leaders have an antipathy toward practices not invented within their organization. 

In the future of work, defeating cognitive biases in order to thrive means relying on research-based best practices.8 That involves a hybrid model of one to two days in the office each week, while permitting a substantial minority of employees to work remotely full time. This best-practice setup9 will translate to diverse benefits: retention of top talent, creation of flexible company culture, and—most importantly for our purposes—seizing an innovation advantage.

Traditional brainstorming

Brainstorming represents the traditional approach to intentional, non-serendipitous innovation. That involves groups of 4–8 people getting together in a room to come up with innovative ideas about a pre-selected topic. 

At first, everyone shares their ideas, with no criticism permitted. Then, after group members run out of ideas, the pool of ideas is edited to remove duplicates and obvious non-starters. Finally, the group discusses the remaining possibilities and decides on which ones to pursue.

Research in behavioral science10 reveals that brainstorming participants enjoy these sessions and find them to be effective in generating ideas. That benefit in idea generation comes from two areas identified by scientists.11

One involves idea synergy, meaning that ideas shared by one participant help trigger ideas in other participants. Experiments show that synergy benefits are especially high if participants are instructed to pay attention to the ideas of others and focus on being inspired by these ideas. 

Another benefit comes from what scholars term social facilitation. That’s the benefit of social support from working with others on a shared task. Participants feel motivated when they know they’re collaborating with their peers on the same goal.

Personality barriers to traditional brainstorming

Sadly, these benefits come with costs attached. One of the biggest problems is called production blocking.12 

Did you ever participate in a brainstorming session where you had what you felt to be a brilliant idea, but someone else was talking? And then the next person responded to that person, and they took the conversation in a different direction? By the time you had a chance to speak, the idea seemed not relevant, or redundant, or maybe you had even forgotten what you wanted to say.

If you never had that happen, you’re likely extroverted and optimistic. Introverts, however, have a lot of difficulty with production blocking. It’s harder for them to formulate ideas in an environment of team brainstorming. They generally think better in a quiet environment, by themselves or with one other person at most. And they have difficulty interrupting a stream of conversation, making it more likely for their idea to remain unstated.

Those with a more pessimistic than optimistic13 personality also struggle with brainstorming. Optimists tend to process verbally, spitballing half-baked ideas on the fly. That’s perfect for traditional brainstorming. By contrast, pessimists generally process internally. They feel the need to think through their ideas, to make sure they don’t have flaws. Although brainstorming explicitly permits flawed ideas, it’s very hard for pessimists to overcome their own personalities, just like it’s hard for introverts to generate ideas in a noisy team setting. 

Pessimists are also powerfully impacted by a second major problem for traditional brainstorming: evaluation apprehension.14 Many more pessimistic and/or lower status, junior group members feel worried about sharing their ideas openly, due to social anxiety about what their peers might think about them. Moreover, despite instructions to share off-the-wall ideas, many people don’t want to be perceived as weird or out of line. 

Finally, conflict-avoidant and/or politically savvy team members may feel reluctant to share more controversial ideas that challenge existing practices and/or the territory associated with high-status team members, especially the team leader. These ideas are often the most innovative ideas, but they are frequently left unsaid.

Other barriers to traditional brainstorming

A related problem to evaluation apprehension is brainstorming groupthink.15 That refers to team members coalescing around the ideas of the most powerful people in the room. In the idea generation stage, groupthink involves lower-power team members focusing more on reinforcing and building on the ideas of the more powerful participants. In the idea evaluation stage, groupthink results in the ideas of the more powerful getting more preferential selection.

A final problem relates to group size. The more people you get in a traditional brainstorming session, the fewer ideas16 you get per person. Scholars attribute this loss of efficiency to a phenomenon called social loafing.14 The more people participate, the more tempting it is for each individual to not work quite as hard at generating ideas. They feel—rightfully so—that they can skate by with less effort and engagement. That’s why research finds that the most efficient size for traditional brainstorming groups, in terms of maximizing the number of novel ideas per person, is 2.

As a result of these problems, numerous studies show that traditional brainstorming is substantially worse for producing innovative ideas than alternative best practices.17,18,19 It’s a great fit for helping build team alignment and collaboration, and helping group members feel good about their participation. But you shouldn’t fool yourself that using this technique will result in maximizing innovation. Thus, if you want to leverage innovation to gain or keep your competitive edge, traditional brainstorming is not the way to go.

The final barrier: Team leaders

Leaders often told me that they don’t resonate with these problems. What I explain to them is that they, as leaders, tend to be extroverted and optimistic, as these personality traits facilitate leadership. Leaders, by definition, are the centers of power in product brainstorming sessions: they can interrupt at any time, without any problems, and all groupthink coalesces around their ideas. Because they own the outcomes of the brainstorming meeting and are thus strongly motivated, they don’t feel social loafing. It’s a classic case of the bias blind spot,20 our tendency to not be aware of our own cognitive shortcomings.

When I ask leaders to survey their staff on these issues, employees report experiencing most or all of these issues. That helps convince leaders that traditional brainstorming is not the panacea they typically perceive it to be.

Virtual brainstorming

Trying to do traditional brainstorming via videoconference is a poor substitute for the energizing presence of colleagues in a small conference room, thus weakening the benefits of social facilitation. It’s also subject to the same exact problems of evaluation apprehension as traditional brainstorming. No wonder leaders responsible for innovation dislike it.

Instead of the losing proposition of videoconference brainstorming, leaders need to abandon their fixation on synchronous team meetings for brainstorming. Instead, they should adopt the best practice of asynchronous virtual brainstorming.

Step 1: Initial idea generation

All team members generate ideas by themselves and input them into a shared spreadsheet. You can do so via many software platforms: when I facilitate brainstorming meetings, I typically use a Google Form, which automatically produces a Google Spreadsheet with the responses. 

To tap into social facilitation, the group can input ideas during a digital co-working meeting. You all get on a videoconference call for an hour, turn off your microphones but keep speakers on, with video optional (although preferable). If someone has a clarifying question, they can turn on their microphone and ask, but avoid brainstorming out loud. However, this step is not necessary, especially if the team is geographically distributed such that time zone differences make coordination difficult.

Research has shown21 that to get the greatest number of novel ideas, all team members should be told to focus on generating as many ideas as possible, and informed that the focus will be on quantity, not quality. Likewise, participants should be encouraged to consider contradictions22 between different and often opposing goals in their innovative ideas, such as maximizing impact while minimizing costs. Science has found that this focus on opposing goals facilitates innovation.23, 24

The submissions should be anonymized to avoid evaluation apprehension. However, the team leader should be able to later track each person’s submissions for accountability, as such accountability helps maximize novel ideas.

Step 2: Idea cleanup

The brainstorming meeting facilitator accesses the spreadsheet, removes duplicates, breaks ideas up into categories, and sends them out to all team members. As an alternative, some or all participants can be given access to the Google Spreadsheet and work together asynchronously on this process. If you adopt the latter process, for the sake of anonymity, create throwaway Gmail accounts for those collaborating on the spreadsheet.

Step 3: Idea evaluation

After the ideas are cleaned up, all team members anonymously comment on and rate each others’ ideas. Thus, in a 6-person group, each idea should have 5 comments and ratings. The ratings should assess at least 3 categories, each on a scale of 1–10: the idea’s novelty, practicality, and usefulness. Additional ratings can depend on the specific context of the brainstorming topic.

Step 4: Revised idea generation

After commenting on and rating ideas, team members do another round of idea generation, either revising previous ideas based on feedback or sharing new ones inspired by seeing what others came up with. In both cases, the process taps into the benefits of synergy by incorporating the perspectives of other team members. 

Step 5: Cleanup of revised ideas

The next step is to clean up and categorize the revised ideas. Use the same process as step 2.

Step 6: Evaluation of revised ideas

Following that, do another round of commenting and rating, this time on revised ideas, in parallel to step 3.

Step 7: Meet to discuss ideas

At this point, it’s helpful to have a synchronous meeting if possible to discuss the ideas. Anonymity at this point is unnecessary, since there are clear ratings and comments on the ideas. Group participants decide which ideas it makes the sense to move forward with immediately, which should be put in the medium-term plans, and which should be put on the back burner or even discarded. As part of doing so, they decide on next steps for implementation, assigning responsibility to different participants for various tasks. 

This kind of practical planning meeting is easy to have virtually for full-time virtual workers. Of course, it also works well to have steps 1–6 done virtually by hybrid teams, and do step 7 when they come to the office. However, it’s critical to avoid doing steps 1–6 in the office to avoid production blocking, evaluation apprehension, groupthink, and social loafing. 

You can also attain the same outcome through an asynchronous exchange of messages rather than a meeting. Yet, in my experience facilitating virtual brainstorming, having a meeting reduces miscommunication and confusion for more complex and controversial innovative ideas.

Does virtual brainstorming work?

Virtual brainstorming appears to solve the biggest obstacles to traditional in-person brainstorming. Here’s the big question: does it work? 

Behavioral economics and psychology research supports the conclusion that digital brainstorming has some advantages over in-person brainstorming. For example, a study14 comparing virtual and in-person groups found that, although participants in in-person groups felt better about their collaboration, the feeling proved deceptive: virtual brainstorming resulted in more ideas being generated. While in-person brainstorming may feel more fun, it actually results in worse outcomes. 

Another group of scholars25 researched the effects of group size. It found that the larger the group of participants, the more benefits to electronic brainstorming in terms of ideas generated. That’s because electronic brainstorming is not subject to social loafing. Each participant works by themselves and knows they’re accountable for the quantity of novel ideas, with novelty determined by ratings from group participants.

In fact, research finds that while the larger the in-person group, the fewer novel ideas per person, the opposite is the case for electronic brainstorming. That means with more people, you get a larger number26 of novel ideas per person. That’s likely because of synergy, with a greater total number of ideas inspiring participants to have more additional ideas.

A hidden benefit of virtual brainstorming comes after the initial brainstorming process is complete. While traditional brainstorming leaves a far-from-complete record of ideas, due to sparse notes and fuzzy memories, scholars found12 that the complete record of electronic brainstorming has a substantial benefit as a treasury of novel ideas. As a situation changes, ideas that seemed more practical and useful in the past may appear less so in the future, and vice versa. The group can thus always go back to past ideas and re-rank them accordingly.

My experience implementing it for clients reveals similar outcomes. At first, many participants—especially the more extroverted, high-status, and optimistic ones—complain about the “dry” nature of the process. They miss the fun and engagement of collaborative ideas flying around the table. 

In contrast, more introverted participants take to the process pretty quickly, finding it to be a relief from the cognitive overload of a noisy environment where they can’t hear themselves think. So do more pessimistic and lower-status participants, who are relieved at not having to feel judged for their ideas and worry less about criticizing the ideas of others in the evaluation stage.

After two or three sessions, even the extroverts—including leaders—tend to come around. They acknowledge, even if sometimes grudgingly, that the process seems to produce more novel ideas than traditional in-person brainstorming. In fact, hybrid groups trained on this process, who have the option of doing steps 1–5 in person, nearly always prefer to do virtual brainstorming for these initial steps, while doing step 6 in the office. 

That approach creates the maximum number of novel ideas, gaining an innovation advantage. It also provided the optimal experience for the most group members, balancing the preferences of introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists, lower-status and higher-status members. Team leaders who wisely prioritize focusing on integrating introverts, pessimists, and lower-status team members into the team—which is more difficult than extroverts, pessimists, and higher-status members—find virtual brainstorming especially beneficial.

Conclusion

If you want to gain an innovation advantage in the future of work, you need to avoid the tendency to stick to pre-pandemic innovation methodology. Instead, you need to adopt research-based best practices8 for innovation in the return to the office and the future of work, such as virtual brainstorming. By doing so, your hybrid and remote teams will enable you to gain a true competitive advantage in innovation.

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